‘One Book, One Philadelphia’

“One Book, One Philadelphia” aims to promote literacy one event at a time.

Every year, the Free Library of Philadelphia chooses a new book to showcase during its project “One Book, One Philadelphia,” which hosts events at various locations in the city until March 19.

Program coordinator Kalela Williams said the idea is to choose a book that will create a connection among a variety of audiences.

The book is chosen by a selection committee made up of library staff, educators and library volunteers who narrow the choice down from a list of 40 books.

After deliberation, this year’s book is “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, a fictional novel about the war in Iraq. Powers, a war veteran, used personal experiences and emotions as inspiration for the book that went on to become a PEN/Hemingway Award-winning novel.

“We felt that ‘The Yellow Birds’ was a gorgeously written book, a lot of people were captured by the poetic storytelling, the issues that the book explores connect to a lot of young people today,” Williams said. “This issue can connect to people with military and non-military experience. We have all been in situations where we have to make choices between right and wrong.”

Every year, the Barnes & Noble at Rittenhouse Square puts the chosen book on display at the store. Diane Hall, a manager at the bookstore, said the novel was selling well before “One Book, One Philadelphia,” but now it’s gained more popularity.

“We decided to display it because it’s a local thing, so we decided to be in conjunction with it and promote the book since we are booksellers, after all,” Hall said. “The library usually picks books that are already really popular so that Philadelphia can read some really great books.”

In correlation with the book, organizations around the city will host their own events to follow the theme of the book. Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens put its own take on the theme of peace and war after participating with “One Book, One Philadelphia” for several years.

On Feb. 27, PMG hosted the “Broken Pieces Tour and Talk” with artist Isaiah Zagar. The discussion portion of the event focused on Zagar’s connection to the novel and his history with the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War and his travels to Peru.

Ellen Owens, PMG’s executive director, said she could tell that Zagar experienced culture shock upon returning to the United States after what he called a “peaceful existence” in Peru.

“I think that it’s really important to open up a comfortable space to bring together people,” Owens said. “Sometimes literature and artistic forms overall is a good conversation piece to discuss difficult topics. The discussion of war and racial tension is so critical right now, and it starts a foster point to create good discussion rather than discussing with people you’re used to talking to or issues you wouldn’t even talk about at all. This event is really a great entry point.”

Owens said she noticed a healthy amount of participation this year with “One Book, One Philadelphia,” and is thrilled that an art form can make a difference to so many people.

PMG isn’t the only organization involved in the project. The Asian Arts Initiative has had a helping hand as well.

On Feb. 21, the organization held its monthly story-telling “Family Style Open Mic.” This month, the theme was peace and conflict.

Williams said she is happy to see multiple organizations participating this year, whether it’s because “One Book, One Philadelphia” has reached out to them, or they’ve inquired about the event.

This tradeoff of ideas and events circulating “One Book, One Philadelphia” helps keep lasting partnerships between the library and local organizations.

“It’s a really wonderful program to impart literacy,” Williams said. “By having different events and activities for everybody, there’s something for everybody. Whether it’s art, discussions, music, dance, theater, there’s something for everybody and it all connects back to a single book. Books can connect to you, no matter who you are or where you come from. I want people to see this and think, ‘This is why I need to read more.’ It takes literacy out of the streets and into people’s homes, schools and touches them everywhere.”

Chelsea Finn can be reached at chelsea.finn@temple.edu.

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